Ethan Frome Themes
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Wharton's novel Ethan Frome, although brief, embodies its themes effectively. The most obvious theme is that of personal freedom versus social expectation. Ethan repeatedly submits to the rule of social mores, even though he knows that each time he has done so he has ended up even unhappier. For example, when he was a young man, he wanted to leave his hometown, but he bowed to his family's wishes and stayed. Later he married Zeena, who is a very unpleasant woman, but she fit the social image of what an acceptable wife would be for a person like him. He stays in an unhappy marriage, even though he has fallen in love for real, because his society does not even consider the possibility of divorce. Wharton's persistent drilling of the theme of social oppression makes it seem that she is opposed to going along with what is expected when it conflicts with true happiness.
Another theme is indecision. Ethan never figures out that failing to make a decision is a decision in itself. He glides from one day to the next, wishing he could change things, but letting the events of life just happen. When Ethan does make a decision, he is quickly swayed from his resolve by the littlest bit of interference. Even though Ethan is a very sympathetic character, his inability to be an active part of his own life is his fatal flaw. He blames other people and circumstances for his unhappiness, but will not do what it takes to fix it.